Autore: Diego Barbarelli
pubblicato il 17 Maggio 2020
nella categoria Concorso Giovani Critici 2020
Architecture criticism is commonly intended and practiced nowadays as a discipline that produces a discourse on architectural works, predominantly in the written form, and yet very little efforts have been done by critics to define its nature and its boundaries. Very well practiced at times, but it is rarely clear what its objective is, or at least it is taken for granted and left implicit. However, if we rely on common sense, architecture criticism can be defined as the skilled review of design concepts and proposals including their realization in space and time, their intentions and results, with particular attention to the contemporary social context and debate on the state of the art. We can observe that if this is true, then a (apparent) dichotomy underlies: the designer exercises a practice, while the critic reflects on it and expresses his vision in words. Therefore, practice and theory (“to look at” in its etymology) are intended as two distinct things.
There is a distinction in our culture that would have been unconceivable for an ancient Greek, since we are also used to distinguish scientific knowledge, i.e. theory, from craft or art, i.e. practices, and the corresponding terms epistêmê and technê, in the language of that people which we can still consider at the foundation of our Western civilization, were nearly interchangeable. In fact, every art is based on knowledge, knowledge itself constitutes art – they thought . However, both became ends in themselves: science can now look at science as its only mission, and art can be pursued for its own sake. Correspondingly, the critic, a quite recent invention, can find its end in the critic itself both through analysis, imitating the scientific method, and through contemplation, imitating the artistic approach. It is by this elevation of all of them to a spiritual status, which is as much noble as they are not functional to something else, that their political relevance seems to be concealed.
The manifestation of this schism in our culture of the last couple of centuries, which appears still strongly embedded in our common sense, has been an object of reflection and critique by many relevant authors: Nietzsche strongly denied that knowledge is pursued for its own sake, and affirmed that it should be sought only insofar it promotes life and well being; Heidegger envisioned a sort of possible reconnection between art and science through the concept of technê in his essay The Question Concerning Technology, and more recently different thinkers have identified art in the modern sense as a European invention approximately two hundred years old, as Larry Shiner did in his The Invention of Art. In the field of architecture, it was Adolf Loos who first and most clearly opposed the ancient Greek vision to the new common sense: “Because we have always been taught: practicality excludes beauty. […] Is there still someone, nowadays, who works in the Greek manner? Oh yes! The British as people, the engineers as category.”
At the same time, we have now many elements in the contemporary world that show well enough the power of pure theory to shape our practices: a representative example is the theory of relativity in physics, which made possible the conception and realization of the atomic bomb and of the nuclear power plant, that on its turn determined and still determines in some way the life and practices of large numbers of people. We have, on the other hand, many other elements to affirm that the human practices have shaped our theories: Aristotle, for instance, affirms that philosophy could only arise when men had already provided to their material needs and had therefore the time for thinking, and we could add also science to it, as a direct descendent of philosophy.
If we accept these premises and then we embrace the notion of technê for architecture, instead of attributing to it sometimes the title of science and some other times the title of art, it will be impossible for it to be merely a practice: a building is always a critical device insofar as it reacts to a social and cultural context with a proposal, and we can dare to say that even the architect who refuses this notion, choosing deliberately to design a building deprived of critical purposes, produces a building which is still a critical device, precisely because he tried to deny that purpose (he criticizes the critical approach). Paraphrasing Aristotle: if you ought not to be critical you ought to be critical .
However, a critical device doesn’t imply its being polemical or original or recognized as relevant. Even the most conformist design of a suburban row housing, for instance the Colorado Springs Suburb, can be seen as a critical statement affirming that architecture is at the mercy of speculation market, that people like the anonymity of those houses (since they buy them), or that what is unsound for architects is not so for the rest, and just by adding buildings to the category it strengthen the weight of it in the social and cultural debate and imagery. One could argue that some buildings are simply uncritical. That would imply that the architect, or whoever conceived it, was unskillful and unaware of the state of the art and the social context, otherwise he would have been compelled to react in some way or another. Then, either we accept that a building can be built out of that ignorance and then it is not an architecture intended as technê (i.e. based on knowledge), or we affirm the impossibility of building in complete ignorance of that because everybody has experience of the built environment and in the construction must apply some techniques, which means the building partakes of some small degree of criticism anyway. Hence, it becomes more clear that, since only a tiny minority of all the existing buildings are designed by architects, a probably fruitful approach us would be to enlarge the subject of enquiry on the scale of the built environment, rather than looking merely to architects’ works, as already John Habraken proposed in The Structure of the Ordinary. The critic contribution could bring more benefit if it would manage to reach, inform and influence the large majority of non specialists, instead of stagnating in self-referential discussions.
However, here we must recognize that there are excellent architects and critics, very cultured and experienced such as Peter Eisenman, that we believe would nevertheless deny that architecture can be conceived as technê, since there is a refusal of the utilitarian purposes implied, the rejection of any particular political relevance of the discipline and the convincement that its main concern should be the internal discourse of the transformation of precedents. Curiously, some of his projects are among the best examples of critique through buildings, as it is the case with his series of investigatory houses which affirm the priority of composition logic and the subordination of utilitarian concerns to it: a sharp and materialized critic against the functionalist ideas. Therefore, theory and practice appear deeply intertwined even here, and the architect and the critic as well. Yet, this line of thought appears to us more in line with the critic for its own sake, or at least as more concerned of the theoretical implications than with the nature of the practice, seemingly making of architecture an abstract art. Although we know that there are profound reasons that led him to declare The End of the Classical, and that would deserve a separate argumentation, we still believe that art, science and history are and should be at the service of life rather than ends on their own.
A canonical and successful example of a building as a critical device is represented by the Looshaus in Wien, where the refusal of ornament was immediately felt as a critique to the traditional values by the population, and received with great disappointment. It embodied the vision of Adolf Loos, and it needed to be supported by written and spoken words to be realized, but it eventually contributed to change the opinion not only of specialists but also of others, and promoted its imitation in other architectural artefacts, expanding even further its influence.
An architect who nowadays employs his buildings as critical devices with good relevance in the debate, and maybe with the greatest awareness, is Rem Koolhaas. A couple of examples, even if criticisable under other aspects, are the CCTV Headquarters in Beijing or De Rotterdam, defended in advance in Bigness or the problem of Large. Both tried to reinterpret the concept of skyscraper by an attempt to overcome its typical phallogocentrism. But the most important aspect involved is that criticism in this case is explicitly the method of design: “What the OMA process focuses on is not the creator but the critic. In our way of working, the important person is the one who is shown various options and then makes a critical decision.” In some occasions it is even possible to see his buildings as critical devices used against his own writings, or at least as refinement; as he said: “There is an enormous, deliberate, and – I think – healthy discrepancy between what I write and what I do.” 
In conclusion, architectural criticism can be seen as a fundamental aspect in the production of architecture, which has good reasons not to remain merely in its paper domain to live a sort of parasitic life. In fact, in some occasions we can have the impression that criticism is today an escape to the hard troubles of creation: we think instead that the highest critical awareness is in the best conditions to be influential and creative with direct or undirect results in the practice.
 Episteme and Techne, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/episteme-techne/#2
 Adolf Loos, Parole nel vuoto (1972), Adelphi, p. 43
 Aristotle, Protrepticus, fragment 424, “If you ought to philosophize you ought to philosophize; and if you ought not to philosophize you ought to philosophize”
 Designing the designing process, http://notura.com/2012/02/rem-koolhaas-designing-the-design-process/
 From Bauhaus to Koolhaas: https://www.wired.com/1996/07/koolhaas/?topic=&topic_set=
Data di nascita: 08/06/1992
Professione: neolaureato in architettura